It might not be as recognizable as Coca-Cola’s cursive font, Nike’s swoosh or McDonald’s golden arches, but it comes awfully close.
Now in its 43rd year, the iconic I ♥ NY logo continues to stir emotions all over the globe. In both legal and illegal use, it has graced countless T-shirts, caps, key chains, tote bags, coffee mugs, postcards, brochures, and bumper stickers.
In 2011, the logo’s designer told The Village Voice that he was still “flabbergasted” by the I love NY design’s phenomenal success. Everyone else knows he did something right.
The Origin of the Logo
That designer was Milton Glaser. Over the course of his long, illustrious career, Glaser reflected the culture of the times in more than 400 posters. A prime example is the striking psychedelic poster for the “Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” album in 1967.
Glaser created fonts and logos for universities, book covers and magazines such as Esquire. He co-founded New York magazine and designed numerous sets for the AMC hit series “Mad Men.” In 2009, he was the first graphic designer to receive the National Medal of the Arts.
Glaser’s cheery New York logo rose from one of the grimmest and most financially devastated periods in state history.
The 1970s were especially unkind to New York City. It was experiencing a steep decline marked by vandalism, rising violent crime, cuts to the police force, and prolonged garbage strikes. Drug dealers and peep-show hawkers took over attractions like Times Square. Businesses nervously considered relocating.
New York sorely needed something to boost sagging morale. It needed something to entice wary tourists and inspire bright young entrepreneurs to set up shop there.
The New York State Department of Commerce commissioned the Wells Rich Greene ad agency with a tourism campaign. In 1976, after publicist Bobby Zarem came up with the “I Love New York” slogan, the agency reached out to Glaser.
Glaser was in a cab on his way to the first meeting when he impulsively grabbed a piece of scrap paper and a bright red crayon. He hastily sketched the design that would capture the hearts of people all over the world.
If anyone needs a reminder, the logo looks something like this:
The registered trademark symbol is clearly visible in all licensed uses.
This might have been the first time that a heart symbol, in cherry red, stood in for the word “love.” That certainly wasn’t common at the time. The typewriter-inspired letters are chunky and playfully rounded at the edges. The charming, energetic effect suggests both fun-filled vacations and diverse communities bursting with life.
The logo oozes personality. Its spare, no-nonsense design reflects the practicality and forthrightness of New Yorkers themselves. At the same time, it manages to evoke checker cabs, hot dog vendors, Fifth Avenue, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, the Rockettes and Rockefeller Center at Christmastime.
The bold, emotionally engaging logo was an overnight success.
Inclusion in TV Ads
The campaign’s elaborately produced TV spots initially failed to jump-start statewide tourism. In the first commercials, the emphasis was clearly on New York City. Viewers were inspired to visit Manhattan but not necessarily Niagara Falls, the Finger Lakes or the Adirondacks.
The star-studded commercials were like little slices of Broadway. One featured the whiskered cast of “Cats.” The top-hatted tappers of “A Chorus Line” appeared in another. Singer Lena Horne, who was starring on Broadway in “The Wiz,” did a spot. Beverly Sills, prima soprano of the New York City Opera, appeared as well. Spinoffs of the long-running campaign later expanded to show outdoor enthusiasts hiking, skiing and fishing in the beautiful state parks. Tourism exploded everywhere.
A Fiercely Defended Mark
The New York State Department of Economic Development, which owns the logo, is determined to maintain its uniqueness and branding power. Policing infringements, however, has been an uphill battle.
When the original trademarks expired in the ’90s, copycat logos became widespread in souvenir shops and in other states’ promotional materials. The trademarks have since been renewed, and the NYSDED has been more diligent to protect the logo.
Licensing agreements to third parties are worth tens of millions of dollars, and violations, if they are discovered, are not tolerated. The logo is deeply entrenched in the culture. Even ordinary citizens are fiercely protective of it and prickly about how it’s used.
Honda paid $45,000 for rights to use the logo in a 2005 commercial, but viewers were outraged when an Accord bumped the heart symbol out of the way and took its place. It was considered a sacrilege on Honda’s part, and people were infuriated with the NYSDED for “selling out,” reported The New York Daily News.
“Saturday Night Live” was hauled into court over unauthorized use of the “I Love New York” jingle in a skit that failed to amuse the NYSDED. The court rejected the state’s claim, ruling that SNL was not mocking the jingle itself.
The NYSDED has been accused of being far too heavy-handed. The owner of a small West Broadway coffee shop came under fire in 2009.
Sam Penix had his fingers tattooed with the four characters of the logo, one character on each finger, but he substituted a red coffee cup for the heart. The trouble started when a cartoon graphic of his tattooed fist appeared on his signage and on mugs and T-shirts he sold in the store. The NYSDED found that Everyman Espresso’s “unauthorized and confusingly similar use of the I ♥ NY® logo” violated federal trademark law and implied that NYSDED endorsed Penix’s use of it. The coffee cup didn’t look much like the heart, but an NYSDED attorney wouldn’t budge, explaining that using any part of the trademarked logo was a no-no. (More on that in this article.)
Incredibly, even Glaser, who was happy to design the logo pro bono, got a slap on the wrist for a temporary modification he made.
After the 9/11 attacks, Glaser added an extra line to the version featured on the front page of the New York Daily News:
I ♥ NY MORE THAN EVER
The bright red heart bore a painful black bruise. Glaser received a cease-and-desist letter. The state has filed thousands upon thousands of trademark objections through the years, and many saw this particular instance as going a bit too far.
Related: Our guide to trademarking a logo.
The “Profound Mystery”
Glaser died in Manhattan on his birthday in June 2020. He was 91.
The more turbulent the times, it has seemed through the years, the more his logo has inspired hope, happiness and camaraderie. It has demonstrated remarkable staying power and will continue to do so for years to come if New Yorkers have anything to say about it. They typically do.
“Why does a certain curve and a certain color and a certain contrast hold our attention, and why do certain other forms bore us?” Glaser mused during a podcast interview. “I don’t know. It’s a profound mystery.”